Iraqi Vice-President on Sunni oppression, Nouri Al-Maliki and sectarian division

"The Iraqi tradition was built upon forgiveness and acceptance of the other on the basis of the national identity. This was eliminated in 2003 and the years that followed. Affiliation became linked to sects and race, which superseded the affiliation to the nation and therefore the national affiliation disappeared. This is a product of the occupation."

In 2011 Vice-President of Iraq Tariq Al-Hashimi was sentenced to death by hanging in absentia after an Iraqi court charged him with running death squads. It was December 19, the day after the last of the American troops left the country. First he fled to the Kurdish region, then on to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and finally Turkey where he settled in exile.

The arrest warrant was issued by former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim who first came to power in 2006 and worked closely with the US. At the time, Al-Hashimi said the charges against him were politically motivated. A number of Sunni politicians agreed that the charges risked plunging Iraq into a sectarian crisis. Many accused Al-Maliki of silencing political rivals.

Two-and-a-half-years after he escaped Iraq, Al-Hashimi is not short of criticisms of Al-Maliki. Most of his grievances still centre on Al-Maliki's role in pitting Sunnis against Shias. He describes what is happening in Iraq now as a "full-blown" sectarian war.

"All security institutions, the police and intelligence, are supposed to show balance as they are institutions which are supposed to serve all Iraqis with no consideration of sect, religion or party. But today these institutions are part of the Shia component. In addition to this, Nouri Al-Maliki has given the green light to Shia militias that are linked to Iran to kidnap, kill and displace as they please in Iraq. The actions by these militias have been totally concealed from the western media."

If there are two themes that Al-Hashimi continues to revisit throughout this interview it's that the oppression of Sunni Arabs in Iraq has been largely ignored and deserves far more attention from the international community than it is currently receiving. "It is imperative that the Iraqi situation is not reduced to the issue of IS," he says of the hard-line offshoot of Al-Qaeda, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham or 'Daash' in Arabic, who have dominated discourse about Iraq in recent weeks.

"In Iraq now there are two types of terrorism: there's the Sunni extreme fanaticism, which Da'ash represents, and there's the Shia extreme fanaticism which are represented by 15 militias linked to Iran, which use the same violent ways as Da'ash in slaughtering and displacing people. Why is the West focussing only on what is named Sunni terrorism? Why don't they focus on Shia terrorism? Is there an understanding between the US, the EU and Iran over this issue? To turn a blind eye to Shia terrorism and to put all the focus on Sunni terrorism, this is a clear case of double standards from the West."

"Nouri Al-Maliki gave the green light for the use of excessive force to kill those who protested on April 23, 2013, in Hawija and after that in Al-Anbar," recalls Al-Hashimi. Last year Iraqi troops stormed anti-government protest camps, which were set up to draw attention to Sunni marginalisation and the repression of prominent Sunni politicians. Iraqi forces also arrested MP Ahmed Al-Alwani, who was a prominent supporter of the anti-government protests, and killed his brother.

Perhaps this is because they resisted the US when they occupied Iraq, Al-Hashimi suggests, by way of explanation.

Whilst Al-Hashimi condemns the displacement of the Yazidi community, and that they are being forced to convert, for him it is yet another example of the international community misplacing their attention. "The international community has focused on a few thousand Christians, a few thousand Yazidis, but it has turned a blind eye to 1.6 million Sunni Arabs who have escaped Nouri Al-Maliki's barrel bombs in Fallujah, Al-Ramadi and other places. Many of these families have gone into the desert without shelter or sanctuary, without housing or food. Their condition is far greater than that of the Christians and the Yazidis."

It is not just Al-Hashimi who is disillusioned with Al-Maliki's time in office. In August Iraqi President Fuad Masum nominated a new prime minister after repeated calls for Al-Maliki's resignation from domestic and international parties. Haider Al-Abadi, who took his place, was tasked with forming a new, inclusive government. Both Al-Maliki and Al-Abadi are part of the same political bloc, the Islamic Dawa Party.

Even with Al-Maliki gone, Al-Hashimi is cautious in his optimism. "The change of face alone is not enough. What is important is that with the change of face, there needs to be a change of policies, and a change of approach. Until now, there are no indications that the designated alternative, Al-Abadi, is ready to make any real new changes in all the various aspects which have been destroyed during Nour Al-Maliki's reign of eight years."

"The nominated prime minister should have criticised and condemned the reign of Nouri Al-Maliki which has brought Iraq civil wars and division. Thus, building on this condemnation, promises should have been made to the Iraqi people that he is going to bring about real changes on all aspects of life, including security, politics, economics, finance, and culture. This has not happened until now."

Though Al-Hashimi believes it is Al-Maliki who brought civil war and division upon Iraq, he ultimately holds the US responsible for tearing apart the country, a disaster he believes was premeditated by a super power. Despite their mistakes, earlier this month the US started using aircrafts and drones to strike targets in northern Iraq to deter Islamic State fighters there.

"Iraq does not need more bombs or missiles or drones," he says. "Iraq does not need strength. Iraq needs wisdom, and seeks the involvement of the US and international organisations, particularly the UN and maybe the Arab League, to help the Iraqi's sit together on a roundtable and revise the political process in Iraq over the past 11 years, and to agree on one road for the current and future generations."

The Islamic State, says Al-Hashimi, will not retreat simply through airstrikes. They are part of a problem Al-Hashimi terms "the Iraqi crisis", or wider, more far reaching issues that rock the country. He believes that, not only are IS the product of a premeditated attempt to divide Iraq, and the product of the occupation, but that military intervention will push more Arab Sunnis to join IS.

A few days before this interview a pick-up vehicle with four armed men in Iraq, supposedly part of IS, was targeted and the men inside killed. But 20 unarmed, innocent civilians were part of the collateral damage. "This will lead to more anger, more negative reactions, and an increase in sympathy with IS. So the use of force will lead to detrimental results and will not achieve the objectives." Innocent deaths fuel anger amongst the Iraqi population.

Still, for all his criticisms of the US, Al-Hashimi came into office riding on the coattails of the American-led military invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussain. He professes he did not want to take part and was "forced" to take the position of vice-president against his will, in a controversial political process. He did it out of love for his country and a desire to attain stability and security. Looking back, Al-Hashimi admits he made mistakes but says he would not change his participation in the political process.

The divisions in Iraq today, says Al-Hashimi, did not exist in the same way in 2003. "The issue of sects was never a dominating issue or part of the Iraqi culture. The Iraqi tradition was built upon forgiveness and acceptance of the other on the basis of the national identity. This was eliminated in 2003 and the years that followed. Affiliation became linked to sects and race, which superseded the affiliation to the nation, thereby the national affiliation disappeared. This is a product of the occupation."

These divisions will not be solved by splitting the country and forming three states, one for Sunni, one for Shia and one for Kurds. They will be improved with equality for all citizens, he explains.

"I believe that the solution for the Iraqi problem is to revive the sense of brotherly co-existence as it was in the past, before 2003, and to make real reforms in the central government. Therefore, we hope that Al-Abadi is successful not only in forming the ministerial cabinet, but also in making real changes that restore the national brotherly co-existence amongst Iraqis, thus ending and dismissing the need to divide Iraq."

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor